Confronting Islamophobia: CAIR speaker addresses truth and stereotypes
Brainerd community members flocked to see a Muslim civil rights group director speak on Islamophobia in two presentations Thursday. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, gave ta...
Brainerd community members flocked to see a Muslim civil rights group director speak on Islamophobia in two presentations Thursday.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, gave talks at the Central Lakes College campus as part of the college's Cultural Thursday public lecture series, and in the United Church of Christ Thursday evening.
"We fear each other, that's something that we both need to work on." Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
More than a hundred people packed into a CLC music rehearsal room during Hussein's afternoon talk, which went mostly without confrontations. Attendees who came late had to stand and lean against the wall.
Hussein began his talk with a definition of Islamophobia, which he said was an "irrational fear," perpetuated by "negative stereotypes."
"Islamophobes have identified themselves as so-called 'experts' on Islam," Hussein said. "They benefit from the fact that there is a great deal of ignorance about Islam ... there are a lot of them out there in our community."
Hussein compared CAIR to civil rights groups like the NAACP. The Minnesota CAIR chapter, one of 35 chapters nationwide, was founded in 2007, he said. All of the chapter's donors are from Minnesota, he said, and he invited attendees to donate.
Polls show a majority of Americans have little or no understanding of Islam, Hussein said.
"Yet today, the majority of the public, the majority of our society, is forced to some extent to have a conversation about it," he said. "When we have a great deal of ignorance, combined with a conversation that is not rosy-especially with the context of national terrorism-we can see how people's fear can drive (the conversation)."
The number of cases of discrimination CAIR deals with in Minnesota has steadily risen over the last few years, Hussein said, with 207 cases in 2015.
He said the 2016 presidential race was a factor in the rise in instances of Islamophobia. Islamophobia has also become racialized, he said, pointing out instances of bigotry against Sikhs, who are not Muslims but are typically non-white and sometimes wear turbans.
Hussein also spoke out against the idea of treating Islam as a monolith, where all its practitioners have to answer for the crimes of a few. He referenced a March 28 incident in which a Tennessee man was shot by police after allegedly brandishing a BB gun in the U.S. Capitol visitors' center.
"Some guy yelled 'God something' and shot something in the air," Hussein said. "Nobody ran out and said, 'Oh, all the churches, let's get the pastors, let's get the reverends, and let's condemn him, he used our religion in vain'... he's a crazy guy, that's where it ended."
The alleged gunman, Larry Dawson, was arrested last fall for a different incident in which he yelled he was a "prophet of God" inside the U.S. House of Representatives.
Hussein posited the reaction would have been much different if Dawson had been a Muslim.
"Imagine the amount of (media) coverage, and every single email that I would receive: 'Why isn't CAIR condemning it?'"
Pointed audience questions
Nobody directly confronted Hussein as he spoke. However, at the end of the 45-minute presentation, Hussein selectively answered audience questions that were written on cards and passed forward. The first question he answered, as he read it aloud, read: "Considering that the Koran commands Muslims to lie in defense of Islam, why should I believe anything you have to say?"
"Oh, my God," one woman in the audience muttered after Hussein read the question.
But Hussein appeared to take the question in stride.
"Well, you don't have to believe anything I have to say," he said. "I don't speak for all the Muslims. I don't even speak for Islam."
Hussein went on to say that some Koran verses needed to be viewed in the context of the entire work, and taking Koranic verses out of context was the same thing terrorists do to motivate their followers.
"Lying is a sin in Islam, just like it's a sin in Judaism or Christianity or any of the other faith traditions," he said.
Hussein's second presentation Thursday night at the United Church of Christ was sponsored by the Brainerd Area Coalition for Peace and brought out about 20 people to the church's fellowship hall. Coalition member Doug Olson introduced Hussein to the crowd and explained how he emphasized the group's goal of "encouraging dialogue and promoting understanding between people of different cultures, faiths and backgrounds."
Hussein went over many of the same things he discussed in his presentation earlier in the day and encouraged honest questions from those who had them. He emphasized the goal of the presentation was to inform and have a dialogue.
"I always say you can never overcome or change someone's mind, that's never the goal," Hussein said. "The goal is to have a discussion and to understand the differences."
Talking about differences between groups of people helps lessen the importance of those differences, Hussein said. It also decreases the fear between groups, he said, which goes both ways. Just as someone may fear someone different than they are, the person viewed as different fears having prejudices and stereotypes projected onto them, he said.
An issue with Islamophobia comes up when people consider all Muslims to be one, that they're all the same, Hussein said. Many people have been conditioned to think of Arabs as the predominant Muslim group, he said. In fact, they account for about 200 million of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims.
"With Islamophobia and the narrative that's being set, it's very dangerous," Hussein said. "It's not dangerous just to the Muslims in America, but it's dangerous to how we as Americans are seen in the world."
An interesting part about Islam is Muslims aren't required or allowed to think about changing someone's faith, Hussein said. People will have to come to the faith on their own, he said.
"Guidance is from God," Hussein said. "It's not my job to convert you, I can't."
Hussein talked about St. Cloud and issues the community has experienced due to an influx of Somali immigrants. Somalis are coming to St. Cloud for a simple reason, he said.
"The reason why is because there's jobs," Hussein said. "That's it."
It's turned into a transitional place, Hussein said, with many families starting in St. Cloud before moving onto a different area. There's a consistent influx of young families coming into the area and experiencing differences between Somali and Minnesota cultures, he said.
"We need people to be honest with each other," Hussein said. "We need both people to be pushed out of their comfort zones."
Becky LaPlante said she came to the evening presentation because it was "something cultural to do in Brainerd." She works a lot in St. Cloud, she said, so she's aware of the problems Somalis have encountered in the area.
"But most of it really is first-generation assimilation issues," LaPlante said. "Not being familiar with how things work here."
Islamophobia isn't just a Muslim issue, Hussein said, it's an issue for an entire community.
"We fear each other, that's something that we both need to work on," Hussein said. "We both need to reach out."
ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .
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